In its ordinary meaning, Court Music is understood as music genres, including music for dance and opera, used in worshiping ceremonies, national court – organized festivities, and occasions of entertainment for Kings and Royal families.
But the term Nha Nhac (imported from China) was used by Vietnamese feudal dynasties from the Ho Dynasty with different meanings, for example sometimes indicating general court music, sometimes court ritual music in particular, sometimes indicating music department, even a concrete orchestra.
The initial foundation of Nha Nhac – the Vietnamese Court Music began conceiving since the 17th century but it only reached the peak at the Hue Court under the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). The Court Music was officially formed along with the rise of Nguyen Dynasty in the early 19th century. In about 1947, 1948, Madame Tu Cung (mother of King Bao Dai, wife of King Khai Dinh) gathered once again some court music artists, helping to maintain some genres of Hue Court Music and dance. In the 1980s, it began to attract attention of the Ministry of Culture and local authorities. In the 1990s, Hue Court Music enjoyed renaissance. Thereafter Hue Court Music has been introduced much abroad.
The different genres of the Hue Court Music include worshiping ritual music, court ritual music, court dances, chamber music and opera (royal classical opera - tuong).
In the former times, Hue Court Music consisted of various genres: Giao Nhac used in the sacrifice ceremony to the Heaven and the Earth. Mieu Nhac used in worshipping ceremonies at the temples of meritorious ancestors of the Nguyen clan, Confucius, Nguyen Dynasty's literature doctors, national heroes; Ngu Tu Nhac used in Than Nong, Thanh Hoang, Xa Tac worshiping ceremonies; Dai Trieu Nhac used in great ceremonies or receptions of foreign ambassadors; Thuong Trieu Nhac used in ordinary court ceremonies; Yen Nhac used in great royal banquets; Cung Nhac (or Cung Trung Nhac) used inside the royal palaces.
Former Hue court dances were rich and performed on many occasions. The 11 court dances remained until now are composed of Bat Dat (used in Giao, Mieu, Xa Tac, historical kings and Confucius worshipping ceremonies); Luc cung, Tam tinh, Bat tien, Dau Chien thang Phat, Tu Linh, Tam quoc Tay Du (used in van tho - King’s birthday, thanh tho - birthday of King’s mother, tien tho - birthday of Hoang Thai Phi (the imperial concubine of King’s late father) and the Mu (a Fairy or Guardian angel) worshipping ceremonies); and thien xuan (birthday of the prince – the successor to the throne); Trinh tuong tap khanh (used in tu, ngu tuan dai khanh ceremonies for wealthy people and powerful country; Nu tuong xuat quan (used on the Days of Victory, Nguyen Dynasty Enthroning Day, lunar - calendar May 2nd, at great night banquets and receptions of foreign ambassadors); Vu phien (devoted to the King's Mother, wife, ladies-in-waiting, princesses at weddings); Luc triet hoa ma dang (on Nguyen Dynasty Enthroning Day for the watching of the people masses in the front of Phu Van Lau).
The repertoire for court music genres mentioned above consisted of a variety musical pieces. Yet, in the declining stages, many of them were lost; only the words have been remained. The pieces still preserved are Muoi ban ngu ( or lien bo thap chuong - suite composed of 10 pieces including: Pham tuyet, Nguyen tieu, Ho quang, Lien hoan, Binh ban, Tay mai, Kim tien, Xuan phong, Long ho, Tau ma), Long dang, Long ngam, Phu luc, Teểu khuc, Tam luan cuu chuyen - ritual music asking for good rains, Dang dan cung, Dang dan don, Dang dan kep, Thai binh co nhac, Bong, Ma vu, Man and some other pieces of chamber music such as Nam Binh and Nam Ai, etc.
Nguyen Dynasty court orchestras were divers in type and number of instruments, depending on the kind of royal rituals and entertainment. There were many kinds of orchestra for example Nha nhac, Huyen nhac, Ti truc te nhac, Tieu nhac, Dai nhac, Co xuy dai nhac, Nhac Thieu, Bat am, Ty chung, Ty khanh, Ty co, etc.
Hue Court Music succeeded and enhanced the achievements of Thang Long Court Music – formed many centuries ago - to a new height. This succession and enhancement are shown in: Maintaining some court orchestras of the previous dynasties (the most distinctive of which are Tran Dynasty's Tieu nhac and Dai nhac) and creating rich variations based on Le Dynasty ‘s orchestras; The continuing use of many common musical instruments of Thang Long Royal Music; Maintaining and diversifying some previous court dances, at the same time creating many new dances; Creating a new type of chamber music (don ca Hue) and enhancing Vietnamese instrumental music to a new height both in performance techniques and forms of ensemble; Succeeding the Dang ngoai "tuong" and bringing it to flourish simultaneously forming a new specific kind of tuong: the "tuong Kinh" (tuong of the capital city) in the style of "tuong van"; Succeeding the system of tone regulations of the Hong Duc time under Le Dynasty in the second half of the 15th century and developing music language and theory; Continuing the traditions of learning, adopting and Vietnamising foreign music elements that were shaped in Vietnamese music in general and in Thang Long Court Music in particular…
The special traits of Hue Court Music is the process of integrating, adopting and modifying Chinese, Champa cultures and Buddhist, Confucian impacts. Court Music is closely connected with "tuong" (hat boi) art. Hue Court Music synthetizes itself the abundance and diversity in many aspects including the art-type aspect, the genre aspect, types of instrument and timbre, in repertoires, in kinds of orchestra organization and ensemble forms, the performance environment and melody… So Hue Court Music could satisfy both the spectators’ audition and vision by its abundance "dishes of different tastes".
The Hue Court Music has large scale and highly professional: As the official music of the state, it consists of many large scale orchestras, many music and dance items were performed by a big staff of instrumentalists, singers and dancers. Moreover, this is the music genre that has high degree of improvisation and variation of the melodious scheme.
Hue Court Music is the last vestige of Vietnamese Court Music. It contains all quintessence of Vietnamese Court Music trend that has been established and developed over 1,000 years, therefore Hue Court Music is identical with Vietnamese Court Music.
At the official meeting of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) in Paris, Nha nhac, Vietnamese Court Music, that Hue has preserved so long, was officially listed by UNESCO among masterpieces of the Oral and intangible heritage of humanity on 7th November 2003. This is the first intangible heritage of Vietnam ever listed in this list, recognized the achievements of 10-year process of striving, tireless preparation of the central, local governments and the Hue Monuments Conservation Centre.